george crumb

MusicWatch Weekly: Everything is popular to someone

"Popular" and "classical" music, from Third Angle to School of Rock

This weekend’s concerts are pretty evenly split between “classical” music and “popular” music, so I think it’s time we talk about how you can tell the difference between them.

Humorist and Florida man Dave Barry discovered a pretty good definition in his son’s encyclopedia:

But we also need to define “classical music.” A little farther on in the World Book, we come to the section on music, which states: “There are two chief kinds of Western music, classical and popular.” Thus we see that “classical music” is defined, technically, as “music that is not popular.” This could be one reason why the “average Joe” does not care for it.

He has a point, sort of, but let’s break this down for real. First let’s dispose of some common half-assed theories. To start, “classical” music isn’t necessarily any more “intelligent” or “sophisticated” or “difficult” than “popular” music, and vice versa for ostensibly poppy characteristics like “accessible” and “simplistic” and “folk-based” and “relevant.” Consider Duke Ellington, Carla Bley, Björk, tUnE-yArDs, Brian Wilson, Imogen Heap, and the damn Beatles for “pop” (this is just off the top of my head–I’m sure you have your own favorites). Consider this bit of inspired Mazzolia and this bit of insipid Mozartiana for the rest.

Consider Caroline Shaw.

The one common charge that comes pretty close to sticking is the one about “elitism.” Musical education, access to “classical” performances, spare time for lessons, money for instruments, etc.–these are all earmarks of privilege. Many of the best classicists of the modern era (from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos to Frank’s Academy of Creative Music to Oregon’s BRAVO Youth Orchestras) have tried to break down those walls, and it’s one of the few things the internet has ameliorated. Yet “classical” at large remains a fairily conservative and meritocratic world.

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MusicWatch Monthly: A Septemberful of ‘music’

"Classical" music, "Hip-hop" music, "Queer" music, "Experimental" music

Well, friends, you’ve got a helluva nice September to look forward to. Oregon Symphony provides live backup to the greatest movie of all time and also Wyclef Jean. Cappella Romana performs a bunch of Byzantine music, Kalakendra and Rasika present Indian classical music and dance, Nordic folk band Sver comes to Alberta Rose, and local rapper Fountaine headlines a free Labor Day hip-hop fest.

FearNoMusic and Third Angle swing back into full Relevant Classical mode this month, while Oregon Repertory Singers perform local composer Joan Szymko. Portland State’s Queer Opera presents gender-bent opera scenes and art songs, Dolphin Midwives plays a Harvest Moon Cacao Ceremony, and the Extradition Series imports a Canadian trumpeter.

We’ve even got a few concerts for you outside the Portland metro area, in case the shame trolls decide they want another helping of bananafied humiliation optics, police cover, wasted city resources, and charitable donations.

“Drip, drip.”

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MusicWatch Weekly: clarinets cut loose!

Chamber Music Northwest blows into town with windy festival-within-a-festival. Meanwhile, woe unto thee: you just missed Makrokosmos V.

“Good afternoon! I’m David Shifrin, and I play the clarinet!” A big roomful of laughing clarinetists goes “woooo!” and welcomes the Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director to Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall for the first of the festival’s five New@Noon concerts. It’s the last Friday in June, it’s breezy and just uncomfortably warm enough, and we’re up here in the Performance Hall—instead of down in the recital hall by the statue in the basement, where the New@Noon shows are usually held—because of that roomful of clarinetists. “We have a hundred clarinetists here,” Shifrin said, a gigantic smile on his face, “and it’s a joyous occasion.”

David Shifrin and Ralston String Quartet play Mozart. Photo by Jonathan Lange.
David Shifrin and Ralston String Quartet play Mozart. Photo by Jonathan Lange.

Earlier that week

Last Friday, I told you all about the lovely afternoon and evening you could have down at Reed College the following Monday. CMNW’s all-Mozart opening concert was as purply as promised: a warm breezy day, a cool evening, and all the Mozart you could stand—culminating in the delirious birdsong laden romp through the countryside which was Shifrin and Protégé Project Artists Rolston String Quartet ripping through the majory-as-cherry-pie Clarinet Quintet in A Major.

The best music of the evening, though, didn’t feature clarinets much at all: the Notturni for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Baritone, and Three Basset Horns. This combination, when it held steady (two of the basset hornists occasionally switched to plain vanilla Bb clarinets), was so extraordinarily luscious it made me want to hear everything arranged this way. Nottorni, cantatas, arias, art songs, requiems, whole operas, all of it.

Extra points to soprano Vanessa Isiguen and mezzo Hannah Penn (the latter fresh off two runs of Laura Kaminsky’s As One) for supporting both each other and baritone Zachary Lenox, all while blending with the weirdo horns, selling the hell out of Mozart’s sweet, smeary, summery harmonies, and just generally kicking ass.

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Makrokosmos Project: expansive vision

Fifth annual festival of 20th and 21st century music creates and relies on community

When Portland native Stephanie Ho first heard Makrokosmos, the massive, four-volume cycle of amplified piano and percussion music written in the 1970s by one of America’s greatest living composers, George Crumb, she thought, “I haven’t lived on this Earth until I heard this music,” she remembered. 

Years after that epiphany at Oberlin College’s prestigious music school, Ho and her husband and piano duo partner Saar Ahuvia decided to play Crumb’s mega-masterwork to inaugurate their first Portland festival — which they named.

Makrokosmos Project turned out to be an apt name for their annual five-hour, come-and-go-as-you-please music marathon, which happens for the fifth time from 5 to 10 p.m. this Thursday, June 27, at Portland’s Vestas Building. A macrocosm is a social body made of smaller compounds — in this case, a series of five 30- to 45-minute concerts with breaks for locally sourced vino, vittles, and conversation. And the expansiveness the name suggests also alludes to the broad audience the festival seeks for new and often unfamiliar music by creating a relaxed, communal experience.

E Pluribus Unum

The festival started because Ho and Ahuvia, a married couple who live in New York City, visited Ho’s native Portland each summer to catch up with family — and nature. Their friend Harold Gray, the Portland State University professor and pianist who founded Portland Piano International, suggested that “instead of only doing so much hiking, we should do something musical, too,” Ahuvia recalled.

Stephanie & Saar performing in Portland.

After all, as DUO Stephanie & Saar, the pair of powerhouse pianists had earned a national reputation for their performances of classical and contemporary music. Since moving to New York in 2004, they’d staged performances in “strange venues” like World Financial Center and One Liberty Plaza in lower Manhattan, Bank of America building in LA, (le) poisson rouge in NYC (the old Village Gate – a grungy indie-rock club), Knockdown Center in Queens (an old doorknob factory that has been transformed into a gallery and performance space), and the basement bar of the now closed Cornelia Street Cafe in the West Village. “If any place was up to that, it was Portland,” which is all about keeping it weird.

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Column Zero: Summer comes alive

Chamber Music Northwest blows its clarinets, Storm Large sings about craziness, Makrokosmos gets nightmarish

We here at Oregon Arts Watch tend to pay a lot of attention to Oregon composers. In a sense, our job is made easier by the problem outlined yesterday by Senior Editor Brett Campbell: we like local composers, living or recent, diverse in gender and age and race and genre. That’s exactly who is often underrepresented in the largest institutions, and—lucky us!—that means we have a journalistic obligation to write about exactly the artists we’d want to write about anyways.

Wolfie

But never mind that for a moment—I want to talk to you about Mozart. We’ll come back to Kenji Bunch and Storm Large and George Crumb and Tōru Takemitsu and all the rest, but for right now I want to take the somewhat contrary position that we should absolutely be happy about hearing Mozart’s clarinet music at Chamber Music Northwest this week.

The pair of opening concerts (Reed College June 24, PSU June 25) are a handy confluence of musical meanings. Outgoing CMNW Artistic Director David Shifrin is, of course, a very fine clarinetist himself, and in past years has dazzled and transported us with gorgeous renditions of everything from Bach and Mozart to Messiaen and Akiho. This season—his second-to-last before handing the reins to Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim for the 2020/21 season—thus fittingly concludes with a whole lot of clarinet music. And, because this is CMNW, the concerts stretch all the way back to the instrument’s first great composer and all the way forward to recent and newly commissioned works by those beloved modern composers we talked about earlier.

But they’ll have to wait a little longer while I justify Mozart to the kids.

Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director David Shifrin

You probably learned in music history class or here on internet that Mozart was pals with pioneering Viennese clarinetist Anton Stadler, an early virtuoso who sold Mozart on the new instrument’s charms. It’s a pretty weird instrument, essentially three instruments in one body, its lower chalumeau register stretching almost to the bottom of the cello’s range, its upper clarion and altissimo registers covering the violin’s entire range. Its tone is unlike any other woodwind instrument, a “long purply sound” in Berio’s phrase, somewhere between a human voice and a bowed string instrument.Mozart ended up composing plenty of really good music featuring clarinets and their sibling basset horns, and the best of it pairs the Frankenstein instrument with voices and/or strings—an ideal blend of sound colors and expressive possibilities.

Mozart ended up composing plenty of really good music featuring clarinets and their sibling basset horns, and the best of it pairs the Frankenstein instrument with voices and/or strings—an ideal blend of sound colors and expressive possibilities.

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Makrokosmos IV review: screwy, spiritual music for a summer evening

Portland summer modern music marathon’s ‘Dadapalooza’ mixes Cage, Zappa, Crumb, piano, percussion, even cactus into a meditative musical experience

Story by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Photography by Masataka Suemitsu

Summer evening, Northwest Portland’s Vestas building, next to the Lego wind turbine. A box truck’s worth of vibraphone and xylophone and timpani and chimes and cymbals and crotales and tam-tams and on and on; two grand pianos, interlaced, lidless, ready for anything; a table full of cacti and branches and wires and shit.

Across the lobby, on the other side of the elevators, past the wine and cheese, over by the windows onto a bright sunny NW Everett, sat the other piano. The prepared piano. Tastefully roped off like a museum piece, prepared with screws and tacks and whatnot inserted between the strings to vary the sound, according to the instructions developed by famed American musical theorist / composer John Cage.

DUO Stephanie & Saar performed and directed Makrokosmos IV.

On the back wall, behind the tam-tams, a projection of various visual schemata. Slabs of Sanskrit and Chinese writing. The Makrokosmos Project logo, George Crumb’s iconic “Spiral Galaxy” score (suitable for framing!) The score and preparation instructions for Cage’s 20th century milestone Sonatas & Interludes, which would ultimately close the concert.

Musicians and enthusiasts gather. Chris Whyte and Paul Owen from Portland Percussion Group, sleeves already rolled up like proper percussionists. Oregon Symphony violinist and 45th Parallel Executive Director Ron Blessinger makes his customary cameo. No fewer than six of Oregon’s most adventurous pianists tumble in, ready to play some John Cage: Alexander Schwarzkopf, Deborah Cleaver, Susan Smith, Jeff Payne, Julia Lee, Lydia Chung. I spot audio electronics whiz (and fellow Bonnie Miksch acolyte) Branic Howard running sound and such. Then Miksch herself, then local classical music celebrity Robert McBride, the former classical radio host and Club Mod president, both apparently enjoying their summery freedom to do nothing but compose music and go to concerts. Before too long the whole gamut of Cascadians and Arts Journalists and New Music Weirdos I always see at these concerts has arrived.

It’s Makrokosmos IV: Dadapalooza—five-odd (if not exactly dadaist, as far as I could tell) hours of piano and percussion music by modern and contemporary composers, perpetrated for the fourth year by the New York based piano Duo Saar & Stephanie. Last time, this happened. Here we go.

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Makrokosmos Project II: Joyously crazy music

In both Eugene and Portland, New York piano duo Stephanie & Saar's second annual festival goes American Berserk!

By JEFF WINSLOW and DANIEL HEILA
Photos by Adam Lansky

Editor’s note: OAW writers and composers Jeff Winslow and Daniel Heila each saw Stephanie & Saar’s Makrokosmos Project 2 last month, in Portland and Eugene. The programs differed somewhat, and so did their respective experiences.

Portland— As I sipped wine in an intimate side gallery, a sudden crash radiated from the main exhibition space at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery like thunder rolling through the concrete canyons of Manhattan. Stephanie & Saar had just started New York composer Philip Glass’s Four Movements for Two Pianos from 2008, yet another in a long line of works mining the sound that brought him millions of fans over a generation ago. I’ve never been one of those millions, and yet there was something glorious in the way the two lidless pianos echoed around the reverberant space. A recording wouldn’t be able to match it. In the hands of husband and wife team Saar Ahuvia and Stephanie Ho, the work emanated a sheer joy of piano sound that reminded me of a very different composer. A century ago, Sergei Rachmaninov penned work after work that, however much today’s fans and detractors may argue about faults and merits, nevertheless undeniably overflow with that same exuberance.

DUO Stephanie & Saar created and performed in the Makrokosmos Project2.

DUO Stephanie & Saar created and performed in Makrokosmos Project2

Glass’s work was just the first in June 23’s evening-length series of piano concerts, the Makrokosmos Project’s second annual installment, “American Berserk!” As it turned out, the planned climax of the evening, Frederic Rzewski’s massive set of 36 variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”, never quite materialized because one of the six pianists who were to play it had last-minute health problems. The remaining pianists gave a rich sample, interspersing Saar’s and Stephanie’s lively commentary with about a quarter of the variations. They will all regroup to give the entire work in a free concert at Portland Piano Company this November 13th.

There was plenty of other joyously crazy and crazily joyous music to make up for it though. The world premiere of Gerald Levinson’s two-piano work Ragamalika: Ringing Changes, a Makrokosmos Project commission, was a firehose spewing colorful harmonic and contrapuntal confetti inspired by bell overtones and music of the Indian subcontinent. The John Adams composition that gave the evening its name (without the exclamation mark) came across like Claude Debussy’s etude For Chords on hallucinogens. Recent Baltimore-to-Portland transplant Lydia Chungwon Chung almost made us believe people could really fly under their influence, even if it turned out it was “only” her hands.

FearNoMusic pianist Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

FearNoMusic pianist Jeffrey Payne at Blue Sky Gallery.

But nothing could match the utter strangeness of John Zorn’s Carny. New music maven Jeff Payne’s deadpan performance let the New York avant garde composer’s sprawling, herky jerky work, loaded with allusions to fragments of others, speak for itself, but I’m not sure what its message was exactly. Maybe I would have gotten more from seeing the choreography of the FearNoMusic founder and pianist’s hands, but seating was all around the edges of the room and I happened to be sitting on the opposite side from the keyboard in play. An idea for future Makrokosmos Projects: project video of each keyboard on the wall behind it, so everyone in the room can see the pianists’ hands in action.

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